Amateurs Like Us: The Snarl

Apr 20, 2017 - 4:00 PM

So I fell.

Total faceplant. And when I say faceplant, I mean my helmet brim dug into the sand and my glasses had granules of sand smeared on them.

I lay there a moment, assessing the damage. I used to leap back up when I splattered off a horse but I have since learned to first determine if anything is broken.

As I lay there, I thought to myself “Oh, &*%$, does this mean my confidence is going to be shattered and I’m going to be chicken of doing prelim again in May?”

Cairo and I getting it right. Photo by Irina Kuzmina

I think that’s a fairly good indication I didn’t have a head injury, since I went right from shooting over Cairo’s head to pondering my possible confidence issues.

My glasses were fine by the way.

Not two days before this I had gotten to the barn to see a Western rider and hunter/jumper rider merrily cantering around the arena without helmets. “How’s your deathwish today?” I asked. The Western rider smiled, “My horse is always good.”

Seriously? Anything can happen. Tell that to Courtney King Dye. She will beg to differ. I admit it: If there’s one thing I’m not very nice about it’s people without helmets. The barn is my happy place, but I’m happier if we are all trying to be safe.

I don’t even like to ride in the same arena as helmetless riders. I think: What if Cairo does something sassy and the other horse spooks and the rider falls and gets hurt and I feel like it’s my fault because my horse bucked when really it’s the rider’s fault for being an un-helmeted fool?

Cairo’s other signature move is the open-mouth snarl. One minute we are peacefully cantering a 20-meter circle and the next Cairo has cocked her head at a passing horse with her ears back and her mouth wide open like a one-mare horror movie. She’s very stealth about it and doesn’t even change the rhythm of her canter. Some horses pass tranquilly by and others react the way a swimmer does upon seeing a shark.


And if my horse doesn’t snark or buck, but the rider falls for whatever reason—which, my paranoid worries aside, is more likely than Cairo actually mare-staring someone into a fall—I’m the one dialing 911.

Did I mention I’m not very nice about people without helmets?

So you can imagine I was definitely wearing my helmet when Cairo and I headed out to pop over some little fences.

I warmed up over a crossrail, then I cantered up to a 2’6″ vertical—I knew Cairo was not in front of my leg, but I didn’t do anything about it in time — I underestimated the small fence and Cairo’s respect for it, thinking she’d notice it was bigger than the crossrail and do something about it. (Oh, right, my horse will fix it for me. That’s cute.)

Cairo jumped the little fence too slow and too sloppy, and caught the rail between her front legs. It didn’t give immediately so she started to go down. One minute I’m going over a fence, then next minute Cairo’s front end disappears and I’m doing my best lawn dart impersonation over her head.

I’ve never fallen off Cairo in the almost four years I’ve had her and now I know: She’s not one to wait around. As I faceplanted and got up close and personal with the arena sand, I remember thinking, “There’s no way she won’t step on me.” How could she not? I fell under her front feet.

But this is Cairo, so somehow she didn’t go down and she didn’t step on me, she just managed to slap me on the butt with the tip of her toe as she danced over me on her way to the other end of the arena. I suspect that slap was on purpose, to ensure we both knew that I was the idiot, not her.

I found myself giggling. Here I am all in a twist about going prelim and I eat dirt at a beginner novice fence. And I found myself remembering George Morris’ advice at the clinic I watched last fall—it’s not as scary if you know why you fell. I fell because I needed her in front of my leg.

There were several people nearby and they caught the wayward mare, helped me dust the sand off and checked her out for me. Not a mark on Little Miss Thing.

I climbed back on. There is an advantage to a short horse with a big stride and a big attitude: Easy to re-mount after you’ve done an unplanned dismount.

Cairo and I popped over a couple fences. I swear she glared at the white rail that we fell over as we jumped it and gave it an extra scornful tail swish as she landed.

Having established that I hadn’t suddenly lost my nerve over a faceplant, I got off and gave Cairo a good rubdown and me a couple Ibuprofen. I took a good look at my helmet and promptly tossed it in the trash. It had sand ground into it and was definitely done for. I much prefer that sand be ground into my Charles Owen than into my face.

And after, I couldn’t get out of my thankfully unbroken head the thought that if the horse of one of those helmetless riders the other day had stumbled and the rider fallen, even just cantering, that fall would have smacked them into the ground just as hard or harder than I hit.

Steffen Peters is wearing a helmet. Silva Martin credits her helmet with saving her life. Are you worried your hair will get messed up? Come on, you’re at the barn, you are going to have to brush it anyway to get the alfalfa and sawdust out. Are you worried you won’t look pretty on your horse? Well, you won’t look pretty on a hospital bed without one.

So the good news is, Cairo was fine, I was fine and I’m getting all excited for a clinic with Dom Schramm at the beginning of next month. I haven’t ridden with my event trainer Meika Decher since September, and I’m excited to show her how far along Cairo’s canter has come. You know you’ve come a long way when in your dressage when you post a video of you and your horse cantering a 20-meter circle and you get a couple hundred Facebook likes from your friends.

Now that I think about it: Cairo’s canter, like her jump, is better when she’s in front of my leg. I’m so good at figuring these things out after I already made a mistake!

Camilla Mortensen is an amateur eventer from Eugene, Ore., who started blogging for the Chronicle when she made the trek to compete in the novice level three-day at Rebecca Farm in Montana. Camilla works as a newspaper reporter by day and fits training and competing Cairo into her days.

Read all of Camilla’s adventures with Cairo…


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